Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Kafka, Franz - The Trial

The Trial is a book you either love or hate. Kafka himself would prefer you hate it. Before his death in 1924 Kafka begged his longtime friend Max Brod to burn all of his writings. This request was not honored, but it reflects how Kafka thought about his own writing. He was a depressed, angry man driven to write but hating his works. Thus The Trial was born, which is perhaps the strangest autobiography ever written.
The Trial is a book about a middle class banker who awakes on his 30th birthday to two very strange occurrences. First his breakfast does not arrive at its normal time. Then he finds himself interrogated and arrested by two agents for an unknown crime and is left at home to await his trial. One of the agents is named Franz. The unlucky protagonist is named K. It does not take much guesswork to figure out who Franz Kafka is talking about.

The Trial is an autobiography of the mind. Instead of exploring the outward events in his life (first day of school, first love, etc.) Kafka explores what makes him tick. Franz is tortured because of K.’s actions. K. finds himself surrounded by torn up papers and ink bottles representing failure. He also cannot hold real relationships. It is little wonder that Kafka came out of the same bourgeois Jewish world that Freud did, for Kafka also talks in symbols, sexuality, and subliminal thinking.

Reading The Trial is an intense experience. The reader shares in K.’s agony as he is pushed from place to place without ever figuring out why he is here or what his crime is. His trips to the courtroom are “stifling” and throw him into a desperate madness. K. is trapped in a game he cannot win, or even know the rules of. The book perfectly describes the sense of suffocation and confusion Kafka felt in his strict German surroundings. Few authors have put as much of their being into a book as Kafka has.

When I first read this book it was in a philosophy class. The course was about the theme of progress and how various thinkers have defined it. We read The Trial first as sort of counterpoint for everything else we read. In The Trial progress is not possible. The human being cannot change or overcome. All a man can do when forced to confront his life is panic and die, as Kafka puts it, “like a dog.” 

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